Review: Alan Wake’s American Nightmare

The original Alan Wake is a premier example of gameplay that, if separated from story, would place a game on the wrong side of decent. Luckily, a tight narrative, strong characterization, impeccable atmosphere and the right amount of peaceful farm-exploration easily made up for combat mechanics with all the depth of a thumb-wrestling match. So upon American Nightmare’s grindhouse-style announcement trailer suggesting an Alan Wake that shot first and waxed about Stephen King second, I was immediately cynical, thinking the original’s underwhelming sales (due to a release date within days of Red Dead Redemption’s) had forced on a significant dumbing-down.

Having played the game, it turns out my worries were a bit misplaced; American Nightmare does bring more narrative interesting-ness, as well as improvements on the third-person shooter combat. However, a limited scope and a story that, although fascinating, ends up futile make the game feel like an Alan Wake appetizer rather than the full meal fans have been hoping for.

The game makes it unclear, but it would seem the story in American Nightmare is not an actual continuation of the first game or its DLC, but a kind of suggestion, a “maybe” of how the plot proceeds, manifested as an episode of the fictional Twilight Zone-ripoff TV show, “Night Springs”. It features author Alan Wake chasing an evil clone of himself through a rural desert Arizona infected with Darkness, the evil spiritual force from the original. Playing into that framework is a dozen supernatural concepts and rules, which while occasionally seeming slightly flimsy, are intriguing enough to make one forget. The problem is how the tale wraps up – or rather, how it doesn’t. None of the interesting plot-lines are resolved, and instead, we get a superficial “happily ever after”. It might be that developer Remedy were afraid to go too far down a path which might not end up being canon, but a feeling of wasted potential still accompanies the end credits. Yet, even with a lacking conclusion, American Nightmare’s story is far ahead of the average videogame plot, and easy to immerse oneself in.

Doing much to make it so are the characters Alan encounters on his adventure, either through meeting them in person or hearing them on the radios scattered about. Their persona’s are all individually Hollywood-ey: There’s the logical scientist-woman, the artsy indie-chick and a handful more, but none of them pack a punch like Mr. Scratch, Alan’s aforementioned evil clone. Portrayed mostly in glorious FMV, Mr. Scratch is as close as the game gets to the grindhouse style hinted at by the marketing. Scratch is an evil bastard, and had he worn a mustache, he would surely twirl it with fervor. On in-game TV’s, he can be seen essentially video-blogging from a nondescript hotel room. In these videos, Scratch gleefully demonstrates his dastardliness, sometimes by violence to an innocent, sometimes by personal digs at Alan. Game writer Sam Lake plays Scratch with extravagant hamminess of the best kind, striking a nice chord between irony and sincerity. Along with the rest of the cast, Scratch gives the game personality, even if it’s not quite to the level of the first Alan Wake.

There’s a reasons why I’ve yet to describe the gameplay. As with the original, American Nightmare’s mechanics are far less engaging than its story: It’s a third-person shooter. Possessed maniacs run at you with axes, you deplete their darkness-shields by shining a flashlight before dumping some rounds into them. There’s the standard assortment of heavy/light enemies along with a few quirkier variants. Though similar to zombies in many ways, they never come in hordes big enough for Left 4 Dead-style chaos, and neither are their tactics advanced enough to warrant strategic play: Timing a dodge-move correctly, not equipping the crappy weapons and dropping flares in the middle of crowds is as deep as it  gets. The combat is technically solid enough to prevent severe frustration, but more time spent with it, the more you’ll want to skip to the next NPC interaction or story beat.

The larger structure of the game is a bit odd. Instead of linear levels, there are three mini-sandbox environments, each with its series of fetch-quests. Due to an early plot revelation involving a time-loop, you’ll sequentially play through these areas three times. The story and character dialogue change in interesting ways each playthrough, and the most tedious corners are cut in later runs, but there’s no denying the annoyance of re-playing the same mundane puzzles and switch-flipping objectives.

Remedying the occasional gameplay tedium is a significant, ever-present motivator: The hunt for manuscript pages. As in the first game, there are short voiced text vignettes written by Alan Wake lying around, both directly related to the plot and background-filling exposition-pieces. Language-quality in these is exceptional, and their content always fascinating. Penned in a style of deliberate pretentiousness fitting of Alan’s character, they are compelling reads/listens, and knowing each re-visited area meant new pages stemmed much of the monotony.

I originally assumed the repeating levels were consequence of a lower budget, but this theory was debunked once I played the Arcade Mode. Strangely featuring maps not sliced from the campaign, Arcade mode is a standard score and wave-based survival mode, as seen in the 21958773 other shooters on the market. You are dropped in a nighttime arena armed with a flashlight, a handgun and a combo-system and tasked with surviving until daybreak. Superior weapons can be picked up eventually. Aside from a damning lack of multiplayer, it’s a well-constructed mode. But as mentioned, Alan Wake’s combat stales rapidly outside the comfortable context of its narrative, so Arcade Mode little merit if you’re no compulsive completionist or highscore-junkie.

As a shooter, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is merely decent. As a standalone, story-driven title, it’s confusing and almost meaningless. But as a fan-oriented side-chapter in an already compelling universe, it works perfectly. Its tiny duration of 3-4 hours won’t chew up much time, and you’ll have a batch of fresh ideas to ponder while waiting for the true second chapter in Alan Wake’s story.

Pros:

  • Interesting universe of the type seldom seen in videogames
  • Compelling narrative
  • Polished all-round feel

Cons:

  • Weak conclusion to the story
  • Combat is mediocre…
  • …decreasing the value of  arcade mode.

3 out of 5.

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Author: Magnus Risebro View all posts by
Magnus Risebro lives deep in the bowels of Norway. He writes about videogames for Vagary.tv.